History

Soundbite: Outing History

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They call it "the love that dare not speak its name" for good reason. Even after the explosion of literature on gay issues since the 1970s, comprehensive examinations of homosexuality in history have been few. An exception is Louis Crompton's new Homosexuality and Civilization (Harvard University Press), a sweeping account that was 18 years in the making. Crompton, a professor emeritus of English at the University of Nebraska, presents both a catalog of horrific abuse and persecution in the West and a surprising history of tolerance in some Eastern cultures, such as Japan, where homosexuality was "an honored way of life among the country's religious and military leaders." Assistant Editor Julian Sanchez spoke with Crompton in December.

Q: What in your research surprised you most?

A: The material on the widespread acceptance of homosexuality in Chinese and Japanese culture, which had been obscured because in the 19th and 20th centuries those countries became much more homophobic. Also, Islam theoretically allows for the death penalty for homosexuality, but the love and appreciation of young males was prevalent in poetry. The pretense was that those relationships were platonic, but the feelings were acceptable, whereas to write a love poem to a boy in 11th-century England would have been unthinkable. There's since been a return to the seventh century, when sodomites were executed by having a wall pushed over on them. The Taliban reinstituted that practice, using bulldozers to push over the walls. Medieval jurisprudence meets modern technology.

Q: Attitudes about homosexuality in East and West seem to have flipped now. Why?

A: The West exported homophobia to the Third World and now is having to face the consequences of that. The Third World Anglican congregations objected most strongly to the ordination of homosexual bishops. China became much more anti-gay under Marxist influences: The Marxist line was that homosexuality was counterrevolutionary, a product of capitalism that would disappear when economic conditions changed. My partner is a Cuban who lived there when Castro came to power and saw many gay men taken away to concentration camps. In Japan it was simply the absorption of Western and European attitudes.

Q: Conservatives claim that acceptance of homosexuality undermines heterosexual families. Did you find any evidence for that?

A: The striking example there would be China. Very few civilizations have put such emphasis on the family, even instituting ancestor worship. But this extreme emphasis didn't lead to or require the kind of homophobia we saw in Europe.